The young girl in T-shirt and shorts paces up and down her dorm room, occasionally stopping to vault herself on top of the bunk bed and then back down again.
“Who finished the pizza?” she seems to ask no one in particular. “I did.”
This millennial’s musings would seem typical of any bored college student, if it weren’t for the thousand or so people watching her online.
For four days last week, Target live-streamed five YouTube personalities as they mused, joked, ate, slept and generally passed the time in makeshift dorm rooms outfitted with products sold by the Minneapolis-based retailer.
Not quite commercial, not quite reality, Target’s digital experiment, dubbed Bullseye University, represents its most ambitious attempt to penetrate the digital universe of college students. By scrolling over each room on BullseyeUniversity.com, viewers can also activate pop-up boxes that give information about the merchandise and links to purchasing them on Target.com.
Brian Kelly, a retail consultant and former top marketing executive at Sears, says live-streaming millennials interacting with Target products gives Bullseye University an air of relevance “that’s not as creepy” as other voyeuristic projects.
“Part of the message is the medium,” Kelly said. “And if you can find a way to drive commerce, then why not?”
If BullseyeUniversity.com seems a bit like “Real World,” MTV’s long-running reality show, well, that’s the point. (MTV actually sponsored a concert on the site.) To connect with digital-savvy college students, Target officials say they needed to move beyond commercials and circulars and focus on what resonates with the younger set.
“The millennial guest is different from other generations, especially their media consumption,” Senior Vice President of Marketing Rick Gomez said in an interview. “They are all over digital, mobile, social. … So we have invested a significant part of the back-to-college campaign to the digital space.”
For retailers, the back-to-school shopping season is the second-most-important period in the year behind Christmas, and college students drive most of the spending. The National Retail Federation last week estimated that back-to-college spending will hit $45.8 billion, nearly two-thirds of the entire season. Though the Retail Federation says fewer students will live in dorms this upcoming school year, about 42 percent of families will spend an average of $104.76 on new bedding, small refrigerators and microwaves, up from $100.27 last year. Spending on food items is expected to increase as well, $104.44 vs. $100.18 last year.
Target, of course, wants to increase its share of this market. The retailer has added 200 products to the seasonal back-to-school sections in more than half of its U.S. stores, including items designed to appeal to college students on both an aesthetic and functional level: neon colored bedding and microwavable bowls that prevent accidental spillage of those life-sustaining ramen noodles.
But Target is also after something much more elusive: lifetime loyalty.
“It’s really important for us to build that relationship with these future guests early on,” said Gomez, a former top marketing executive with MillerCoors. “If you get them into Target and understand the brand and what we have to offer, we can create guests for life.
“When you are going off to college, it’s sort of a new life stage,” he said. “It’s the first time you are moving out, you’re on your own, and moving into a dorm or first apartment. As a brand, it’s important to be there for the guest as they are shifting to a new life stage.”
But converting millennials into long-term Target shoppers requires more than just a quirky slogan or a free product. Research shows that millennials are more immune to traditional marketing tactics. They watch far less television than other generations, instead relying on peer recommendations and social-media content to purchase something on their smartphones and tablets.
Carol Spieckerman, president of the Newmarketbuilders consulting firm, said Bullseye University feels more like a digital experiment than a coherent marketing campaign aimed at college students. “It feels a little disjointed,” she said. “Retailers are running lots and lots of experiments at the same time in their stores. What Target has done is to take this multi-testing approach and apply it to digital, which gives Target much more flexibility but also makes it much more risky.”
According to a report by Barkley, a marketing agency, and Boston Consulting Group, about 70 percent of millennials say they feel more excited about doing something if “my friends agree with what I want to do.”
“Once they’ve done their research — which includes consulting with friends and family for advice, both in person and through texting and social sites — they have a high degree of confidence in the decisions they’ve made,” the report said.
That’s why Target recruited millennials with large YouTube followings, like gamer Brooke “Dodger” Leigh and actor-musician Chester See, to live in special cube-like dorm rooms constructed on a dollhouse-like outdoor set in Los Angeles. In addition to interacting with followers on Twitter, the celebrities make an occasional plug for the Target products adorning their rooms.
“Everything you see here you can buy at Target,” said Rahat, a young magician best known for a YouTube video that pranked fast-food workers with a ghost-driven car. “They are super eccentric, cool, and hip.”
Pointing to the microwave oven, he said “Look, I just made mac and cheese!”